October 4, 2003
by train across the Indo-Gangetic plains after the summer monsoon has
spent itself is a refreshing experience. What was a couple of months ago
a khaki, dusty flat land now has different shades of green as far as the
eye can see. Haryana looks what its name denotes, a green land — hara
bharaa — green as green could be. On both sides of the rail track
there are long stretches of water hyacinth or green scum. Water
buffaloes wallow in the water with only their heads above it. When they
get out to munch grass, snow-white cattle egrets follow them to pick up
insects disturbed by them. To supplement their diet, some brood besides
ponds to catch unwary frogs. The scene remains much the same till you
reach the foothills of the Shivaliks. Then there are thick jungles of
lantana, mesquite (keekar) covered with yellow blossoms and
ever-in-bloom ipomoea with purple flowers and thorny cactus. The
Shatabdi Express reaches its terminal at Kalka. It has the longest
platform, I have encountered. And unlike other stations where there are
stray dogs scampering around for food, Kalka has goats. They are
familiar with the coming and going of trains. They jump down from one
platform to the rail tracks and leap up to the other side just as an
incoming train pulls up.
The hills are also greener and appear more afforested. Stream beds which are dry most of the year have water gushing over rocks and boulders. There are not many flowers to be seen along the roadside but it does not seem to matter: for the eyes, green is the most soothing colour. All along the route the fragrance of farmfresh challis or bhuttas, roasted on charcoal amber, are being guzzled by men and women. A freshly roasted corn-on-the cob smeared with salt, pepper and lemon-juice is a feast for kings.
I wish there were fewer trucks and buses on the road. They belch smoke, their engines make a lot of noise as they grind their way uphill, their horns pierce one’s eardrums and they slow down other motorised traffic. Ajourney which should take no more then 40 minutes takes one and a half hours.
Lahore’s Heera Mandi
I get news of what goes on in Lahore’s prostitute quarter Heera Mandi from The Christian Science Monitor. The author Elizabeth Ghauri describes it as Pakistan’s cultural centre. It was no such thing at any time in its history. It was always a redlight area, combining dancing and singing (mujra) with straightforward sex for money. Most non-Lahoris writing about it translate its name Heera Mandi, as Diamond Market. So does Elizabeth Ghauri. It never was a diamond market; only had a clusters of whore-houses. The name is derived from Raja Hira Singh Dogra, a great favourite of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who had a haveli there. Its nebulous claim to being a cultural centre is because Allama Iqbal, Pakistan’s greatest poet, also had his haveli close by. His grandson Yusuf Salahuddin has restored the ancestral haveli as his residence.
Despite the resurgence of religious fundamentalism, banning consumption of alcohol, and the rule of military dictators committed to making Pakistan a Pak (pure) state, Heera Mandi has flourished as the mandi (market) for human flesh trading. It continues to be the main supplier of film scarlets and dancing girls for the Pakistan film industry.
Kuldip Munshi, hotelier of Kasauli, has a fetish for pens. Whenever he drops in on me he brings half a dozen pens as gifts. They are not the common kind of ball-point pens available for Rs 10 or less, but fancy ones I have never seen before. One is combination of a pen and a torchlight. It has a tiny bulb close to its nib, so you can write in the dark. Unscrew it and it has a stronger bulb which can light your way. One has the picture of a comely woman draped in a long black evening dress. You turn it down and the dress slips off the young lady and shows you all she has without a stitch of clothing on her. There are others of different colours — red, green, yellow and, believe it or not, gold.
Amir Tuteja of Washington also has a pen fetish. Whenever I was in Washington, he took me to his favourite pen store. Although I did not need it I was forced into buying one. Tuteja bought three or four. Whenever he comes to Delhi, he brings a few pens for me. And with every set of newspaper clippings he sends me, there is a catalogue of the latest kinds of pens.
I too have a fetish for pens. I have a varied
collection: Cartiers, Mont Blancs, Parkers, Cross, Watermans — you name it, I
have it. Quite a few have been stolen from my collection. So I keep them locked
in my cupboard. I keep three of my favourite pens on my person when I go to bed
at night. Despite my collection whenever anyone gifts me with a new pen, I am
mighty pleased. However, when it comes to writing, I use those I steal at board
meetings of Le Meridien Hotel.